PGA Championship 2019: Graeme McDowell finds golf easier with the 'gorilla' off his back

May 16, 2019
FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK - MAY 16: Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland holds the flag on the third green during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 16, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

FARMINGDALE, N.Y—Graeme McDowell is finding golf much easier to play these days.

“Definitely much easier to play when you don’t have a 100-pound gorilla on your back,” he said Thursday afternoon, a big smile on his face. “I didn’t know how to deal with fighting for my card. That’s not the way I’ve been conditioned to play. I was almost too worried about it at times.

“Now though, the gorilla’s off my back and I feel like I can play good golf again.”

McDowell had just finished shooting a solid, even-par 70 on a bright, breezy opening day in the first round of the PGA Championship and was pleased with the way he had handled the torture test that Bethpage Black can be.

“I hung in there,” he said. “I could have driven the ball better—I’m going to have to drive it better if I want to contend on the weekend—but I scrambled well. This golf course is intimidating off the tee. If you don’t drive the eyes out of it, you’ve got no chance. You can’t play this golf course from the rough.

“This place is hard for everyone,” he said. Then he paused, shook his head and smiled. “Except, I guess, for Brooks Koepka.”

Koepka’s seven-under-par 63 made solid scores like McDowell’s 70 look very ordinary but, even after a disappointing bogey at 18, McDowell walked off the golf course in a tie for 20th place-one shot away from the top 10 (he ended the day T-17).

The gorilla that McDowell carried on his back for most of two years was vanquished in late March when he won the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic for his first victory since 2015. It was an opposite-field event played the same week as the Match Play for those who didn’t qualify for the World Golf Championship. That meant it didn't put McDowell back into the Masters, but it did make him a fully exempt tour player again through the 2020-2021 season.

Just like that, the gorilla was gone. In next outing, McDowell finished T-7 at the Valero Texas Open. He arrived on Long Island feeling good about his game, but not necessarily his chances.

“I honestly thought it would be more of a Barclays setup than a U.S. Open setup and I didn’t think that would suit me very well,” he said. “But when I saw the golf course and realized it was pretty much a U.S. Open setup I felt a lot better about my chances.”

The PGA Tour has played its opening playoff event—formerly known as the Barclays Classic—at Bethpage Black twice, in 2012 and 2016. The tour played the course as a par-71—making the 7th hole a par 5—and, although the winning scores weren’t crazy low (Nick Watney posted 10 under in 2012; Patrick Reed nine under in 2016) the rough right now is considerably higher and the fairways pinched tighter.

“You move the rough in three or four feet on either side and you’ve got a U.S. Open setup,” McDowell said. “That’s better for me. I like playing tournaments where level-par is going to be a good score.”

McDowell, who turns 40 in July, has come almost full circle as a player in the last decade. He exploded into stardom in 2010 with three wins worldwide, including the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach where—not coincidentally—the winning score was even par. He finished that year by scoring the clinching putt for Europe in the Ryder Cup and then beating Tiger Woods in Woods’ exhibition event with long birdie putts on Sunday on 18 and on the first playoff hole.


David Cannon/Getty Images

He was ranked fourth in the world at year’s end but there was no doubt who deserved the player-of-the-year award.

McDowell had chances to win a second major—including the 2012 U.S. Open and the 2012 Open Championship a month later when he was in the last group on Sunday. He finished T-2 and T-5. From the 2010 U.S. Open through the 2013 PGA he had six top-12 finishes in majors. He played on three winning Ryder Cup teams, becoming very wealthy along the way.

He got married and became a father, opened a restaurant in Orlando and was a go-to guy for the media almost any time he teed it up.

And then, after winning in Mexico late in 2015 for his 12th win as a pro—nine in Europe, three in the U.S.—he stopped winning. Then he stopped playing well at all, dropping to 144th on the FedExCup points list in 2016 and 136th in 2017. That was when the gorilla became part of his life.

“My priorities changed, that was part of it,” he said. “But beyond that, I took my eye off the ball for a little while and about 100 25-year-olds went racing past me.

“Now, for the first time in a while, I feel very happy with my game. I’m happy that it looks like my game is going to be in good shape going back to Pebble and with the schedule I have coming up.”

McDowell’s group, which also included Chez Reavie and Australian Brendan Jones, teed off about 30 minutes before the uber-glamour group of Koepka, Francesco Molinari and Tiger Woods. Even though Reavie shot a two-under-par 68, which put him in a tie for 5th and McDowell shot his very solid round, there were moments when they felt as if they were playing in complete privacy.

“There were times when it felt like the PGA Championship out there,” he said, laughing. “Other times it felt more like the Tour. I think there were about 40,000 people out there: 35,000 of them were watching Tiger, 4,000 of them were in the merchandise tent and the other 1,000 were watching the rest of us.” He paused. “Of course the 1,000 had probably gotten lost looking for Tiger.”

learly, golf is fun again for McDowell—even talking to the media is fun again for him. Besides playing well here and at Pebble Beach, his other massive goal is to get into the Open Championship, which will be played at Royal Portrush, which just happens to be in McDowell’s hometown.

At the moment, McDowell hasn’t qualified to play there.

“I try as hard as I can to push it to the back of my mind but it’s not easy,” he said. “I hear people along the ropes saying, ‘Graeme, you HAVE to play at Portrush,’ or ‘Graeme, it won’t be the same if you aren’t at Portrush.’” I appreciate that, I really do, but I know what I’ve got to do is keep grinding and, if I keep playing well, I’ll be there. I know that.”

He was asked what route might get him into the championship. Another smile. Then he listed a half-dozen possibilities: starting with a top-four finish here or a top-12 finish at Pebble Beach; a high finish in the Irish Open or the Scottish Open. After rattling off every possibility but one—final qualifying—he stopped and said, “As you can see, I haven’t given this any thought at all.”

A PGA official was trying to rush McDowell to a radio interview, but he was in no hurry. Even after the microphones went away, he stood and chatted amiably with reporters he’s known for years.

“The next 54 holes are going to be a lot of work,” he said. “There’s no letup anywhere on this golf course.”

He smiled one more time. “Can’t wait,” he said. Only then, did he allow himself to be dragged away to do radio.